Monday, May 01, 2006

What If They Set Out To Save A Piece Of The Planet. . .

. . .And No One Showed?

Earth Day Clean-up Draws More Criticism Than Crew

From The East Meadow Herald - - -

Earth Day turns into protest
Activists say state's stalling woodlands plan; put cleanup on hold

By Scott Brinton

On Earth Day 2005, dozens of volunteers plucked bagfuls of aluminum cans, plastic bottles and blown tires from the thorny bramble patches and murky fishing ponds that line the Meadowbrook Parkway woodlands.

Over the past four Earth Days, more than 500 volunteers gave their time and energy to the woodlands, a roughly 800-acre expanse of state, county and town forest stretching from south Merrick to East Meadow.

On April 22 this year, no one turned out to clean up the woodlands, whose soaring oaks and maples are fast disappearing because of vandalism. It's not that it rained on Saturday, but rather Merrick-Bellmore environmental and civic activists got angry with the New York State Department of Parks.

Bob Young, chairman of the Merrick chapter of the America the Beautiful Campaign, said the Parks Department is balking on signing an intermunicipal agreement that would:

- Prevent development in the woodlands.
- Assign specific tasks to various government agencies to protect them from vandals.
- Create a system of public nature trails through the forest.

To protest, Young and other activists refused to organize an Earth Day cleanup in the woodlands this year, as they had previously. "The dreams and hopes people had in the beginning are not being realized," said Young.

Nassau County Legislators David Denenberg, a Democrat of Merrick, and Norma Gonsalves, a Republican of East Meadow, formed the Unprotected Woodlands Taskforce in the late spring of 2002, after Young and other environmental activists brought vandalism in the forests to light in a four-month Herald series. The taskforce, which included state, county and town representatives, met monthly for nearly three years before issuing a draft management plan for the woodlands in November 2004.

That plan, which Nassau County environmental specialists developed, outlined concrete steps that a number of government agencies must take to clean up and preserve the woodlands. Two of the three involved parties -- the county and the Town of Hempstead -- have agreed to sign on to the plan -- but thus far, not the state Parks Department, according to Young, who is a task force member. "Four years is enough," the longtime Merrick resident said.

Denenberg said, "It's been frustrating that the Parks Department has been slow to work with."

State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr., a Republican of Merrick, has applied pressure to the Parks Department in recent weeks to finalize the agreement. A department representative would not comment on the record. According to department sources who spoke in informal conversations, the agency will likely sign on in the coming weeks. First, the sources said, the department must review what they called a complicated plan to ensure that the memorandum of understanding, or MOU, is perfectly legal.Subhed: Time running out

Environmental activists insist, though, that time is wasting. The woodlands continue to deteriorate every day that the state waits.

Richard and Lisa Schary of North Bellmore are Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference leaders and members of the Unprotected Woodlands Taskforce. In 2002, the couple worked closely with Young to raise awareness about the woodlands' rapidly declining health.

"I'm extremely disappointed that with the limited amount of open space in Nassau, the state can't do better for us," Richard Schary said. "We've done everything they have asked, and they still won't even give us a trail."

Last Friday, the Scharys took this reporter on a tour of the woodlands behind the Brookside School on Meadowbrook Road in North Merrick, as they did four years ago. Clearly, things had changed -- for the worse.

The swath of forest is well known as a teenage party hangout. In 2002, there was one fire pit, around which local middle- and high-school students got drunk and high late at night. Now there are three such fire pits, all within 300 feet of a state Department of Transportation truck yard. According to the plan laid out for the state parkway system nearly 80 years ago, the DOT is entrusted with maintaining the woodlands.

On the Friday of the tour, the largest of the fire pits, measuring roughly 10 feet by 10 feet, still smoldered from the previous night's soiree. The Scharys said that the teenagers, who are wasted and incoherent, leave their fires to burn out. Often, an ember sets low-lying vegetation ablaze. If not for the rapid response of local fire departments, a major conflagration could easily break out. As of last Friday, it hadn't rained for a week and the humidity hovered around 10 percent -- perfect conditions for a forest fire.

Four years ago, the vegetation in this section of woods was thick. But since then, all-terrain vehicle riders and stunt bikers have torn up the ground, the Scharys said. The soil around trees and bushes erodes, exposing roots, which eventually rot out. The trees and underbrush die and collapse, leaving only logs amid the dusty, pebble-laden earth.

Garbage is everywhere. The teenagers throw their beer cans and bottles where they stand. Motorists on the nearby Meadowbrook Parkway also toss their trash out their car windows. On one spot along the Meadow Brook (the stream, that is), two trees crashed to the ground, causing a logjam of hundreds of plastic bottles.

Gonsalves, who also participated in the tour, stood on a well-worn path by the Meadow Brook and took it all in. "I want to cry. I really do. I'm really very saddened by this," she remarked.

A simple solution

Lisa Schary said the management plan would go a long way toward eradicating the vandalism. For starters, it would allow people to legally hike and mountain-bike through the woodlands on a system of marked trails. Concerned citizens would spot trouble and report it to the proper authorities, Schary said. Currently, no one's allowed in the forests without special permission, so only vandals go there.

The plan also calls for signage throughout the woodlands, which would alert people what they can and cannot do in the forest, as well as how to contact state troopers if illegal activities are observed.

Fences would be repaired and erected, along with metal posts at trailheads, to prevent ATVers from getting into the woodlands.

Finally, the plan would create a stewardship group comprising local activists, who would regularly clean up the forests. Young and the Scharys said they're ready and willing to help form such a group.

"No one's asking for money," Lisa Schary said. "We're asking for fences and signs. We want people to know there are rules and regulations."

Comments about this story? or (516) 569-4000 ext. 203.
[Links provided by The Community Alliance.]
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